Flash Fiction: “Scars Earned In The Service”

Loyalty is one of those virtues that can be taken as a vice, depending on who you work for.  And loyalty isn’t the same as blind obedience.


Scars Earned In The Service, by Alexander Paul Willging

Word Count: 987

At the moment the electrodes were applied to her forehead, Belle’s entire body went rigid.  The world disappeared in a blinding light.

And then she was standing on a street corner in downtown Boston.

But it wasn’t Boston and Belle wasn’t really “there.”  For one thing, she didn’t breathe.  There was nothing to feel here.  No smells, no tastes, no wind.  No pain whatsoever.  Like someone had coated the whole city in novocaine.

When she looked down, her body was different, too.  She was still wearing her black suit.  Not a wrinkle to be found.  And her hair was straight and neatly parted to the side.  Nothing was out of place.

Another sign that this whole place wasn’t real.  It couldn’t be real.

But I’m real, Belle thought.  My mind makes this real.

“Hey there, Belle.”  The flat voice made her freeze.   She turned around slowly.

He looked the same as ever.  Same surfer’s haircut.  Same cold blue eyes.  Acid-washed blue jeans below an immaculate Red Sox shirt.  He stood with his hands tucked into his pockets, almost smiling at her.

“Scott.”  Belle stretched out her hand.  “You need to come home now.”

The teenager stared at her hand.  Then he shrugged.  “Nah.”

“This isn’t right, Scott.  You shouldn’t stay here.  None of this is real—”

“Says who?”  Scott held out his left hand and made a fist.

Without any transition, the scene changed.  Now Belle was sitting across from him at a table outside a café.  The ambience was definitely Parisian.  She heard birds singing and children laughing in the distance.  A French waiter came up to pour her a fresh glass of wine.

It finally dawned on Belle that there weren’t any cars or pedestrians in these simulations.  Scott had always hated that.  He hated any distractions from his Nex-Gen worldbuilding.

“This world is mine, Belle,” Scott said quietly.  “It’s not your world.  It’s better than your world.”

Belle’s first instinct was to grab him by the shirt collar and scream at him to snap out of this childish nonsense.  But her training held her back.  She instead offered a calm demeanor.

“Your mother’s dead,” she told him.  “Your father wanted me to bring you out for the funeral.”

“I don’t care.”

“How could you not care, Scott?  Don’t you love her?”

“Do you still not get it, Belle?”  Scott sipped from the wineglass that the waiter had served him.  “You don’t feel things here.  There’s no sensorium code in this engine.  No more hormones, no more tears.  You just… exist.”  He smiled.  “And you play.  Forever.”

“So that’s it?  You’ll just throw away your whole future?  Just play in the virtual world until brain-death?”

“You say that like it’s a bad thing.”

Belle hung her head.  She couldn’t do this on her own.  She didn’t have the training for this.  The kid needed a cybertherapist or a virtual-access priest.  Not some second-rate housekeeper.

She pictured trying to explain the situation to his father.  Pictured his pale, broken face when she had to tell him that his only son was never coming home again, not even to say goodbye to his mother.  To tell him that the whole St. Clair family fortune was in jeopardy.

He’d fire Belle in an instant.  That thought hurt more than all the bullshit Scott was giving her.  Belle Andrews had served the St. Clairs for over fifteen years and never once missed a day of work.  She would rather die than lose the family’s trust.

Scott, on the other hand, seemed ready to let his body die than to face the pain of daily life.

“So what now?”  The teen leaned back in his chair.  A fully-peeled orange appeared in his hand.  He took a bite, then offered it to Belle.  “Are you gonna terminate the sim?  Gonna drag me back to the estate?”

Belle stared at the orange.  Then she looked at Scott’s bland smile.  “Would it matter if I did?”

“If you wanna keep your job, it might.”

“You’re a brat.  You know that?”

“Yup.”  He took another bite of the orange, but didn’t seem to relish it.  Belle wondered what was the point of having good food in a world where you couldn’t actually taste it.

As she stood up, Belle smoothed out the front of her suit.  She liked this suit.  It made her feel confident.  Powerful, even.  It didn’t matter what problem the family was facing so long as she wore this suit.  She was their guardian.  Their friend and ally.  She’d get them through each crisis no matter what.

But perhaps not today.

“Well, all right.”  Belle slowly tucked her hands into her pockets and walked past Scott onto the Parisian boulevard.  “Take care of yourself, Scott.”

“You’re really doing this?”  His tone was still flat.  There was no curiosity or surprise in it.  Even if he’d wanted to sound genuine.  “Just gonna let Dad down?”

Belle paused in the middle of the empty street.  She saw a bluebird soar overhead and turned around to see Scott lounging at the café.

“Yeah,” she said, “I guess I am.  We had a good run, but I can’t do my job anymore.  I can’t keep holding your family together.  Not when I’m the only thing keeping it together.”

“And are you still surprised that I left?”

“Guess not.  I’ll tell your dad you’re okay, but promise me you’ll stay out of trouble in here.”

Scott nodded quietly.  No snotty comeback for once.  Belle was almost proud.  She reached out and ruffled his hair, then turned away.

The sim would be over soon.  She’d let the techs remove the electrodes and then she’d look Mr. St. Clair in the eye.  Tell him that, sadly, Scott wasn’t coming out of his own free will, and yes, this was her resignation from the service.  Best wishes to him and her successor, if there would ever be one.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

“The Wedding Album” by David Marusek: A “Rewired” Review

Copyright © 2007 by Tachyon Publications.

My reviews of Rewired: The Post-Cyberpunk Anthology continue with “The Wedding Album,” a Theodore Sturgeon Award-winning novella by David Marusek that was originally published in 1999.

A British couple named Anne and Benjamin live in a world where casting “sims” (i.e., virtual simulations of oneself and one’s memories at a specific moment in time) is commonplace.  However, the sims of Anne and Benjamin on their wedding day prove resilient to being reset and locked away, especially as the real-life Anne and Benjamin go through a troubled marriage.  Ultimately, the sims try to reconcile their locked memories and personalities with the real world and the multitude of clones based off the same two people, which itself ties into a global campaign for the liberation of all virtual beings and their right to live in the virtual world of Simopolis.  The sim of Anne on her wedding day tries to hold on to her happiness and her sense of reality in the face of an ever-accelerating future.

Suffice to say that this is a truly bizarre story, but because this is a transhuman story that delves into virtuality and digital memories, things going weird was bound to happen.  But whereas William Gibson’s “Thirteen Views of a Cardboard City” is strange because it has no plot or characters, David Marusek’s story has more than enough characters and plots that it stops being a short story and counts as a novella.  The real focus isn’t on the real-life Anne and Benjamin, but on their virtual copies living the same moment over and over again inside a digital memory chip.  They’re sentient, but still constrained and increasingly antiquated in the rapidly-accelerating present day.

Beyond the bizarre mechanics of the plot, the thematic content is strong.  “The Wedding Album” is an exploration of identity and memory and how strongly the two are tied.  It briefly becomes an extrapolation about the emergence of artificial minds based on human minds and the rights they’re owed as sentient beings, though the change in narrative toward this point happens so quickly that the reader easily shares Wedding!Anne’s confusion and frustration.  The ending is also ambiguous, with the possibility of it being happy or horrifying up for debate.

All things considered, this story does its job well in challenging the reader.  It allows you to empathize with a humble memory construct who only wants to hold onto the happy moment for which she was created, which sounds harder than it actually is.  Like Gibson’s “Thirteen Views,” Marusek’s “Wedding Album” is a literary ordeal, but a welcome one for any dedicated sci-fi reader.

Bibliography: Marusek, David.  “The Wedding Album.”  Rewired: The Post-Cyberpunk Anthology.  Ed. James Patrick Kelly, John Kessel.  San Francisco: Tachyon Publications, 2007.

“How We Got In Town And Out Again” by Jonathan Lethem: A “Rewired” Review

Copyright © 2007 by Tachyon Publications.

My reviews of Rewired: The Post-Cyberpunk Anthology continue with “How We Got in Town and Out Again,” a story by Jonathan Lethem that was originally published in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine in 1996.

Our story is set in an unspecified post-apocalyptic American landscape.  Two scavengers, Gloria and Lewis, are trying to get into the nearest town and manage to hook up with a virtual reality production crew en route.  The two are soon enrolled in the crew’s VR traveling tournament show, where teens and young adults are fitted for suits and put into immersive virtual environments for up to three hours at a time.  The goal is to keep the audience entertained with a variety of adventures in these “Scape-Athons.”  But in the end, Gloria doesn’t want her friend Lewis to be exploited and Lewis himself clashes with the production leaders in the end, resulting in their expulsion from the show and forcing them back onto the road.

Lewis is the first-person narrator, a sixteen-year-old wanderer who is implied to be illiterate.  He has a fairly simple view of the world based on his own needs, although he does seem to care for Gloria despite being romantically interested in other girls.  Gloria, on the other hand, is in her early twenties and is more savvy about how things work and how to con others.  But even so, when faced with hucksters and showmen like Kromer and Fearing, she has a limit to how much abuse or indignity she’ll accept.  In giving us one naive character and one informed character, we get a good lens into this dark fictional future.

The world in which Lewis and Gloria live seems to be in the aftermath of a great disaster.  The land between “towns” is bleak and it’s stated that being “in town” is a highly-sought-after blessing.  The story also uses those towns and the traveling virtual reality shows as a kind of twenty-first century circus, as well as a commentary on popular entertainment as  a distraction for the masses.  It’s acknowledged outright that the contestants are just as alienated about life as the audience, but at least both parties can forget about their sad reality for a while when immersed in a virtual environment of their choosing.  The people running the show know this and–like the archetypal Hollywood producer–only care about how much the audience enjoys it and how much money they can make off of it.

There isn’t a lot of flash to this story, though it has a lot of heart.  It goes right for the jugular on the issue of mass media and cheap thrills, while pointing out how desperate the people who participate have to be.  It’s a commentary on where we are and where we’re going, bleak as the road ahead may seem.

Bibliography: Lethem, Jonathan.  “How We Got in Town and Out Again.”  Rewired: The Post-Cyberpunk Anthology.  Ed. James Patrick Kelly, John Kessel.  San Francisco: Tachyon Publications, 2007.